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When Manmohan read Bush's mind

Officials had no clue about the agenda of the talks, but Prime Minister had a good idea what to expect, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2005 18:40 IST

One of the more unusual aspects of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with US President George W Bush in New York on Tuesday was that the meeting took place at Bush's request and that, almost to the time Dr Singh walked into the Waldorf Astoria to meet the President, the Indian delegation had received no official word about the agenda.

Of course, Singh had a good idea what to expect. He had been briefed by his National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan, that Bush would want to discuss Iran and that is pretty much what followed.

The US is clearly trying to build a global consensus around its opposition to Iran's nuclear programme. And though Bush and Singh discussed the subject when they met in Washington in summer, the White House is keen to get India to moderate its stand. So far, at least, Dr Singh has been content to restate India's existing policy on the issue without offering to make any change.

That Bush should be so eager to meet the Indian Prime Minister and explain America's position tells us something about the success of the UPA government's foreign policy.

In the last fortnight, Singh has met British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and now, Bush. All three encounters have ended happily with the foreign leaders lauding Singh's statesmanship or recognising India's standing.

More significantly, even though global terrorism has often been on the agenda, Singh has pointedly refrained from devoting too much attention to Pakistan. His view is that India should cease to see the world through the prism of Pakistan and should forge relationships with the world's great powers that are representative of India's strength in the global community.

Thus, while Singh is due to host a small, sit-down, five-course dinner (no wine will be served given the sensibilities of host and guest) for General Pervez Musharraf at the New York Palace Hotel on Wednesday night, he does not regard the encounter with the General as the highlight of the trip -- as would, perhaps, have been the case with Indian leaders a few years ago.

Within the Indian foreign policy establishment there is a cautious optimism about relations with Pakistan -- infiltration across the border has reduced even if the violence has not -- but as Singh himself has said, his own enthusiasm for the relationship is tempered by the more moderate approach of such aides as Narayanan who do not believe that the terror network has been dismantled. This mixture of enthusiasm and caution is the hallmark of the Manmohan Singh government's approach to Pakistan.

So, there is a degree of annoyance within the government when such issues as the Sarabjit Singh case dominate the domestic headlines. All this may appeal to Indian sentiments, say officials, but detracts from the basic thrust of our global foreign policy.

The government would much prefer it if the media focused on Singh's achievements in relation to the world's major powers. This was highlighted at a briefing for the media in New York on Tuesday. After Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran handled the substantive issues, Sanjaya Baru, Singh's Media Advisor, also asked to address the press, mainly to make the gratuitous party political point that Singh had told Bush how surprised he was that AB Vajpayee had criticised Indo-US foreign policy initiatives. It was an unnecessary intervention, strangely at odds with the Prime Minister's own dignified style. Baru also told journalists, after the briefing, that Manmohan Singh had complained to Bush about Pakistan's control of the flow of terror.

This statement, made outside of the briefing, is not only completely at odds with the Foreign Office account of the Bush-Singh meeting but also indicative of the sorry state of media management in this PMO.